Throughout history unusual features in the landscape have sent human imagination into overdrive, spawning legends, fairy-tales and myths. I’d like to use the next couple of blog posts to investigate this super-charged landscape issue a little further.
My first candidate for natural phenomena are Hohlwege, the German word for well-trodden paths that have literally been hollowed out by generations of feet, hooves and paws as well as by rain and wind, taking several centuries to mature into their creepy and myth-inspiring selves. Such footpaths lead through fields, forests and mountains and typically connect ancient market towns and places of worship and are usually found close to popular pilgrim routes.
So close your eyes and imagine you’re on your way to a medieval market to sell your farm produce. Turnips, onions and beets anyone?
Travelling through Germany’s Mecklenburg in your top-of-the-range oxcart, you’ll come across a forested area called Hohenzieritz Woods, which sits in spooky silence between the towns of Penzlin and Hohenzierlitz. The ancient Iserputt footpath or Hohlweg snakes through the wood, where it leads overgrown and hollowed out by the weather, with deep and muddy cart tracks left by a hundred generations of market traders just like you and your team of pretty oxen, to the nearest place to sell your wares.
We can only imagine with what urgency travellers raced along the Iserputt path, their sandals flying over sticks and stones, their feet splashing through mud-filled puddles and their heads full of ghostly apparitions out to get them for whatever sin their superstitious medieval minds could conjure up!
Another legend has it an old man on a cart travelled on this path in the middle of the day. Without warning, the cart came to a halt and his horses refused to take another step. The old man got off his cart and went to investigate the source of the delay. He found a tall, black figure on the back of his cart, laughing wildly and terrifying the horses. The old man was furious to have a stranger mocking him, so he whacked the apparition with his whip. To the old man’s surprise the apparition disappeared and his horses took him and his cart from that place as fast as their hooves would go.
Ghosts, as one rather rude and ignorant blog reader informed me the other day, “do not exist, you idiots”. I dare to disagree! They may not be Caspar and Co. zipping down the corridor in some abandoned mansion or the Ghost of Canterbury having a score to settle with a new set of occupants, but ghosts are likely to exist in our traditions and belief systems we inherit from our forbearers and that makes them very real to us.
As long as humans believe in a soul surviving death, there will be talk of ghosts…they exist in our minds because they might represent our guilty conscience of unfinished business with the dear departed or our longing to see loved ones again or simply express our own hope that there’s life after death despite scientific proof that we’re just ending up as worm fodder.
Imagine you’re an uneducated peasant working the fields surrounding Castle Penzlin in Mecklenburg, bringing in your hay in medieval Europe. The drudgery of day-to-day life must have been unbearable for an intelligent, but uneducated person of the lower ranks. How better to while away the time while making hay than to invent little stories about the things that occur in our surroundings – natural or supernatural phenomena, if that’s what you believe.
When we see mist rising up from the heated soil after a long, hot day in summer is cooled down by sudden rain, we can easily imagine ghostly spirits are leaving the ground in protest. Morning mist swirling upwards and gathering in clouds around the summits of hills and mountains, the wind changing and moulding their shapes into fantastical apparitions, are perfect candidates for souls rising up to heaven, while pea-soupers in historic towns are bound to be a demon’s breath robbing us of our sense of direction, trying to lure us into a trap.
Naturally, I’m going to use this spooky landscape feature called Hohlwege in my upcoming novel Willow the Vampire and the Wuerzburg Ghosts. Are there any mysterious features in the landscape near you that might inspire a ghostly tale or two?